Jerry Seinfeld and Colin Quinn seem like comedic opposites. Seinfeld is primarily observational; Quinn is primarily analytical. Seinfeld is disciplined and intense; Quinn is easygoing and meandering. Seinfeld is absurdist; Quinn is satirical.
On his namesake television show, Seinfeld was known for taking the tiniest piece of minutia and squeezing it, stretching it and aggrandizing it like some elongated, existential sausage. In his Broadway solo show “Colin Quinn: Long Story Short,” Quinn is known for taking on the entire folly-filled history of human civilization and boiling it down to a single comic monologue. With helpful visual aids.
So how, one wonders, did Seinfeld come to be directing Quinn?
“You know how you give people advice and they never take it?” Seinfeld asked, rhetorically, over the phone the other day. “And when they do, it's such a shock that you feel obligated to be involved?” That's why.
That, and a certain shared history in the comedy clubs of New York, circa the 1980s, when everybody was hanging around the same bars and when Seinfeld was not yet Seinfeld and thus the gulf of celebrity had yet to open up between a couple of comics from the same generation.
“Colin,” Seinfeld went on, “is one of those guys I've run across from time to time in the business who have too much talent. This is not me. I land in the middle. I have about the right amount of talent in that I'm not so good that I don't have to work really hard. But if you've got too much talent, you don't know which way to turn. You could write. You could be a director. You don't know what to do.”
Quinn, 52, has done plenty, but you can see Seinfeld's thesis. If megastardom requires coherence (and a prime-time vehicle), Quinn has been, well, diffuse.
He co-hosted an MTV game show, “Remote Control.” He did stand-up. He wrote for shows such as “In Living Color.” He spent five years on “Saturday Night Live” (1995 to 2000), taking over the Weekend Update segment from Norm Macdonald. He tried (unsuccessfully) to orbit Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. He showed up in movies. He did radio. He did a lot of very different things.
“I tell you, that kind of a talent is a curse,” Seinfeld said. “We'd tried to sell this show about immigration to HBO and we'd gotten caught in those halls of power where a lot of time and energy goes in and nothing comes out. It was very frustrating.”
So Seinfeld told Quinn he should just do a one-man show. “The pipeline there,” Seinfeld said, “is tiny, as opposed to the network show or the feature film, where the pipeline is gigantic. I said that if he did a one-man show, we could put it up in the theater for a little bit of money, and, boom! You've made something. Which is always the point.”
“So I started working on it,” Quinn said, in a separate interview. “I didn't even tell him.”
“Long Story Short,” which opens in Chicago on Wednesday, did very well in New York.
The line on the posters reading “directed by Jerry Seinfeld” surely didn't hurt the box office, but it was Quinn who had to carry the night.
And so he did. After some dry runs in New York comedy clubs, the show first opened at 45 Bleecker in the East Village last August. It then moved directly to Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, the most intimate venue on the Great White Way, where it opened in November and played 135 regular performances. New York reviews were, in general, strong.
In essence, the piece is Quinn's comedic attempt to contextualize human folly and neuroses and to argue, at some length, that it was ever thus. He does not, he says, take a partisan view of history.
“I really don't see myself in the thrust of life,” Quinn says. “I've always been of the opinion that comedians are supposed to see the bull on all sides. I don't see innocence on either side. I don't see righteousness.”
In terms of form, “Long Story Short” has one foot in traditional stand-up and one in legitimate theater.
Although he says he would like “credit for my invention,” Quinn actually is among several comedians — Eddie Izzard and Ricky Gervais are others — who now prefer theaters to clubs and who want to expand the magnitude, so to speak, of the traditional comic narrative. Izzard in particular likes to ramble on about matters historical and geopolitical. Still, there are clearly risks when comedians risk thematic ambition.
“One of the things that people love about stand-up,” Quinn says, “is that the subject changes before anybody gets bored. That's candy for a lot of people. But I say you can't always read a short story. Sometimes you have to read a novel.”
Seinfeld, who has his own gigs scheduled for Joliet this fall and Rosemont next spring, is both a wry observer and an interested party in these trends.
“I think it is interesting that this basic form of one guy on a stage can still be sustained in 2011,” he said, slowly. “There is a lot of comedy product out there right now. But that particular product is not allowed the luxury of not being funny. With a movie or on television, there might be a few awkward calls from agent to actor but nobody really knows that the audience is not laughing. But when it's one man onstage and it's not working, you can see blood.”
So what exactly did Seinfeld do — direction-wise — to stanch any such flow?
“I had some input in terms of the cleanliness of how the show moves from one moment to another,” he said. “If you look at my TV show or my stand-up, you'll see that there is a constant clicking rhythm to what goes on. I believe in that. You don't have minutes going by and people not knowing what is going on. My stuff is more like dance music than symphonic meanderings. I never felt I was interesting enough to take the audience off on some kind of meandering. As I was saying, not enough talent. I like everything to be very tight. For example, I came up with the idea of chapterizing Colin's story. It's a bit of an intellectual exercise to span chronology and geography as he does. I said we had to give people a breath.”
"Colin Quinn: Long Story Short" runs Aug. 24 to Sept. 10 at the Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St.; $40-$65 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com